Kolkata to Darjeeling to Sikkim to Nepal Thurs 7 - Mon 18 October 2010
We ended up staying in Kolkata a couple more days when the part which materialized from Bangladesh turned out to be very very similar to the one we needed ….but still wrong! Ah well - we filled in another lazy day or so in Kolkata not doing a great deal - just hanging out in our fave coffee place - Ray's off Sudder Street which does fantastic real coffee as opposed to the usual Nescafe.
We also went to the busy markets a few times and got some new business cards printed. The shops here were all in heavy card production for the forthcoming festivities as the Durga Puja festival is fast approaching. It was due to kick off in a couple of days and lasts for 5 days during which the Kolkata traffic is even more jam packed than normal if that is imaginable and after which the whole of Kolkata allegedly swarms northwards towards the hills for a holiday. Thus we were timing it well getting out of the way before the huge crowds but we did feel a bit sad that we were going to miss one of India's most renowned festivals. For this reason we decided to go and have a sneak preview at some of the preparations.
Our friend Abby had tipped us off as to where these were likely to be -the aptly named Kumartuli -this being the site of the workshops of the kumars who are the sculptors who fashion these huge statues - so we headed off in that direction. We first tried to catch the underground but it was frenetic - we let 5 trains go before giving up and getting a cab -which sat in traffic for an age - luckily we'd negotiated a fixed fee first! The festival deals with the triumph of good (as personified by the beautiful 10 armed goddess Durga) over evil (the wicked buffalo headed demon Mahishasura.) Whilst it is celebrated throughout India it is a HUGE festival in Kolkata, and also in Mysore we remember from our visit there and Assam apparently. Huge pandals (amazingly huge lifelike ornate pavilions) are built to display models of the goddess and other deities.
There then follows 5 days of revelry before they are thrown into the river amidst partying singing fireworks and killer traffic jams! As an aside what details we learnt of the festival sounded really interesting. The list of ingredients for the rituals in the ceremonies are pretty diverse. For example for the goddesses' bath you need a huge list of ingredients ranging from the dew off a lotus to the soil from under a prostitute's door! Apparently this latter is needed as such soil is full of the virtues left behind when one enters such an establishment and also it shows that all levels of society are included in the festival. I read an article about this saying that - feeling that they were looked down on all year - the prostitutes had started refusing to give the soil or charging high rates for it leading to a scarcity in this vital ingredient. Can't blame them really! When the bath is finally assembled the goddess isn't actually immersed in it but a mirror reflecting her image is bathed instead. All very interesting stuff - will have to return and stay for the festival one year. Book VERY early for accommodation.
We finally got to Kumartuli and it was certainly in full swing. We wandered around the different workshops in this area and found them all hard at work - with helpers of all ages! Apparently they all specialize in certain parts of the process -some making the frames, some adding the clay and some painting. All very interesting.
Next morning -Sunday 10 October- we finally left Kolkata driving northwards. We actually delayed to have breakfast at Flury's (a real favourite) which turned out to be a bad mistake as the traffic was dreadful. The countryside here isn't far from Bangladesh and we passed very near where we'd been on the other side of the border - all really similar - cyclo rickshaws fully laden, the jute crop and rural life everywhere.
This was all very lovely but it started to lose its appeal as we crawled along the dusty village centres! The big problems were - a) the holiday traffic (hardly anything compared with what would follow allegedly but it looked bad enough to us!) and b) the pandals being constructed right across the road. These reduced the roads to one lane only and caused huge tailbacks including a lot of trucks heading to and from Bangladesh as well as trucks delivering Durga statues still wrapped in protective polythene. We spent 14 bum-numbing dusty hours and only achieved 350km…!!
That night we pulled up in Malda a fairly dusty highway town. We had something to eat but couldn't see anywhere for parking. We asked the local policemen and they were no help at all -directing us to a hotel with only road parking - don't think they really understood what we wanted. We drove on desperately looking for a quiet corner and so were really pleased when we saw the Golden Park Hotel. This fairly posh hotel was set in quite large grounds with a good sized car park -plenty of room for us to sleep. All fine but they said we couldn't stay as they had no room!
To cut a long story short I went up and ended up in tears in reception! This honestly wasn't put on I'd just reached the end of my tether. Driving in those conditions with trucks constantly thundering by is really draining and I thought we'd have an accident if we tried to drive on. They then reluctantly said we could stay. We pulled up in the empty car park (other than one couple there were no guests in the hotel) and went straight to sleep. The next morning we had breakfast there and drove on. Don't get me wrong we're really grateful they let us stay but I can't see why it was so hard. At the end of the day we will pay for parking and we generally eat a couple of meals where we stay so at least it's some income for them when they were otherwise empty. The lady owner kept saying "but why don't you travel by airplane??" so I guess it's just a complete lack of understanding - people either get it (whether or not they want to try it or not) or just don't. To each their own I guess!
Anyway well rested we travelled uneventfully on to Siliguri -better roads for this stretch which was good -more speeding overloaded buses which wasn't! On the way we saw the first tea gardens of this part of India -always a thrill and lovely to smell that tea smell in the air again. Siliguri was a fairly ordinary town -a central hub for transport to other areas so a resting post rather than a destination in its own right but pleasant enough. Looking for a parking spot we went first to the Hotel Sinclairs - a bit of a faded Raj-era hotel. It seemed to have a lot of parking space which is the main criteria we use. The snotty receptionist told us we could park for 2,000 rupees!! Yes sweetie we'd sleep in our car if we could afford that! Thankfully we next went to the Hotel Central Plaza which didn't have much room but allowed us to park in their garage for 200 rupees. It was a bit tight backing in but we were glad to relax a bit. It was fine but we went for a walk and later found that the Tourist Lodge next door (the local government hotel) had heaps of parking and would have let us park for nothing - never mind! Durga Puja fever was here too and we loved the somewhat "out there" pandal built to look like a space ship! For the futuristic deity clearly!
We left Siliguri to drive to Darjeeling the next morning along the route of the famous Darjeeling Himalayan Railway - a world heritage listed railway dating from 1881. It was a pretty smooth road for the first 10 minutes and refreshingly free of traffic. The reason for this became clear when a helpful soul -guessing we were attempting to head to Darjeeling- flagged us down and in very broken English told us that the road had been closed - for we're not sure how long - due to landslides!
So back we turned to retrace the last few kilometres and head off on a different -very much steeper - road. It was fairly hairy driving, very steep with sharp corners and lots of speeding heavily laden holiday traffic jeeps going the other way! We had full fuel and water tanks and so to shed a bit of weight pulled over to let the water out - annoying when you need it for your shower but definitely a good idea for safety. It was a very scenic but full on stretch of driving and Andrew did really well as did our car -the Maxxis tyres and Raw Shocks both doing their stuff!
The road wound through tea gardens and up through tiny hill villages which really reminded us of Nepal - unsurprisingly really as the people here speak Nepalese and are culturally Nepalese or Tibetan rather than India. The reminders of this were everywhere in the flags and posters in the street "Gorkhaland is our right" "We will die for Gorkhaland" the bad troubles in the late 1980s seem to have passed but it's still very clear that a lot of people here feel that their total independence from India should be recognized.
Some of the scenery was a bit like that around Kashmir (well some bits to a certain extent!) a view reinforced by both the strong police presence near the border area and the out-there traffic signs - a few old favourites there "Safety on the road means Safe Tea at home" but some fabulous news ones like my favourite "Hurry Burry Spoils the Curry."
Finally as dusk fell we drove safely into Darjeeling the "Queen of Hill Stations" -actually all the hill stations Ooty, Munnar -seem to give themselves this title -but Darjeeling is very lovely!
We thought the best bet would be to park "up top" on the ridge overlooking the town as the windy twisty roads down in town where the cheaper guesthouses and markets are would be very congested.
Luckily we found a great spot at the Tourist Lodge Hotel. It was being renovated in a big way and was only partially opened so we slept on the edge of a bit of a building site but that was all fine -it was a great location with stunning views of the mountains -all for 100 rupees a night. It was amazing how much the temperature had dropped with the climb - Siliguri whilst comfortable had been still warm - it was definitely beanie (that's Aussie for woolly hat) socks and hot showers weather now! We were very tired and had a great night's sleep -until we were woken at 5.30am by the builders returning to work who were staring at us in amazement trying to work out what we were! Never mind we got up and had a look at the mountain range -mainly Mount Khangchendzonga at 8598 metres the 3rd highest mountain in the world just 250 metres short of Everest. This turned out to be the best view we had for the next few days so it was a good thing we got up!!
We had a bit of a wander round the streets -very lovely place full of character and with superb views everywhere- and also made it to a couple of must-sees -the Himalayan Zoological park and the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute -which share the same grounds.
The zoo was fabulous. We really don't like zoos but this one was very good -more like a wildlife park, and the animals looked well cared for. The animal which is the symbol of neighbouring Sikkim - the lovely Red Panda- has been successfully bred in captivity here and the young released into the wild which is very good as these very beautiful animals once neared extinction.
There were various birds and animals but the Himalayan Wolves, the Snow Leopard and the immense tigers were particularly impressive. The tiger watched us as he deliberately cleaned his HUGE paws - wouldn't like to run into him in the jungle! Actually I think they were Siberian tigers so not jungle dwellers - but very impressive creatures whatever!
Tenzing Norgay Sherpa who made history in 1953 alongside Sir Edmund Hilary when they climbed Everest was born here in Darjeeling and after taking a very active role in this museum he was cremated here, a fact commemorated by a statue. It was an interesting museum complex with sections dealing with the history of various attempts on Everest and the sport in general. No pictures allowed inside but if you're here it's worth a look.
That afternoon we had a bit of a treat. Just down the hill from our dusty campsite was the very up market Elgin Hotel - perched on the hill it was the best (we're told) of several very swish colonial era hotels in Darjeeling. So we went in and admired the gardens for coffee in the morning and back in the afternoon for afternoon tea in the drawing room with the very pampered (pedigree from Russia I was told!) resident dog. That's the life!
There was quite a bit we wanted to see but didn't manage to in Darjeeling- the heritage toy railway for instance- but as we wanted to at least have a quick look at Sikkim and as time and our visas were running short we decide to head off the next morning and do a bit of a round trip before leaving India.
On the way through we took in another tourist "must see" Tiger Hill. Just 11km out of town up a steep hill this viewpoint offers a view of a spectacular stretch of the Himalayas encompassing Everest amongst others. It is very much part of the tourist circuit and even at that ungodly hour - 4.30am when we set off and still dark - there was a convoy of jeeps - all stuffed tight with West Bengali tourists. We joined the convoy up to the view point -just as well really as there was no sign for the turn off and we'd have sailed straight past! It was quite a steep climb to the car park area - we parked on the outside a wise decision it turned out! Being Indian the ticket system was very status conscious - you could get deluxe tickets, plain lounge tickets outside tickets or super super deluxe. We tried to get the latter but they'd sold out - most are pre- booked by tour companies. We went for the deluxe lounge- more because it was very cold and looked like rain -the super deluxe turned out to be just a floor higher - with guards cordoning off the entrance. We really should have come the day before as the stunning view -which you could still sort of get the idea of - was completely covered in cloud. Anyway it somehow lost some of its majesty with the huge crowds everywhere.
After we left we were so pleased that we'd parked outside the main area as the tail back of cars waiting to get out was incredible- we reckoned it'd take a few hours to clear out! Off we drove into the countryside. Just a few kilometres away we caught a far better view than we'd had up Tiger Hill when some of the clouds cleared. It was a very lovely drive -again not without its scary moments!
After a 2 hour 1,600 metre descent we hit the fast flowing Teesta. Once a big white water rafting centre but since "the accident" (we never got details!) this has been discontinued! We stopped for breakfast at Kalimpong. Here it was all happening and a big street parade was underway to celebrate Durga Puja - actually there are a few overlapping festivals in these parts at this time of year but we saw the kids with the statue of Durga so we think this was still Durga Puja!
Kalimpong is a bustling little market town set on a ridge overlooking the river with a few good temples and churches apparently though this was a flying visit so we didn't have time to see these. It also has a thriving nursery (flowers mainly) industry and once had a big cheese producing industry -I thought of you Sam if you're reading this! We really miss cheese in India and so we tracked down Larks the one remaining place that still sells this cheese and bought some for future picnics. We were actually trapped in Larks for 20 minutes or so as parade upon parade went past, with 2 very cheerful ice creaming eating nuns for company! We had breakfast in the posh Himalayan Hotel -very Raj era this was actually set up by David McDonald- who was involved in many expeditions to Lhasa and actually helped the 13th Dalai Lama escape in 1910, and the place is still owned by his grandson. Very olde worlde charming with good mountain views.
Feeling that we really hadn't spent long enough here we headed on towards Pelling our next destination. The scenery was increasingly Nepalese now- and we saw the wooden swings which we'd seen when we were in Nepal last - incredibly one year ago. We went past a few road workers and Andrew loved the (Massey Ferguson) tractor /roller - very adaptable vehicle!
On the way we crossed into Sikkim so we had to stop and have our permits duly stamped. As we're getting very near the border to China they get a bit more vigilant on tracking who goes in and out of here -though Sikkim is fairly relaxed. For some of the other states in this region tourists can only go in as part of an organized tour. We got stamped without any issues and drove on into Sikkim- very beautiful lots of windy mountain roads.
We climbed up to arrive at our next destination Pelling - a small town which has grown as a tourist destination purely due to its incredibly views. We had had a bit of a heads up for a parking spot here. When in Darjeeling we'd gone for a pizza in a lovely little restaurant (La Casse Croute) where we'd met 3 fellow Aussies -Mark x2, and Lucy. Lucy had told us they'd met some French/Canadian overlanders, also in a Toyota land cruiser who'd told them of an amazing camp spot they'd had at the Hotel Elgin Mount Pandim a member of the small boutique Elgin chain mentioned before just out of Pelling.
So there we went to enjoy an amazing reception from the managers Ian Hunton Squire and his lovely wife Tshering Squire. Ian is originally a pom, but lived in Australia many years and Tshering is from Sikkim and they have done an incredible job with this amazing hotel which had previously got a bit run down. Now restored to its former glory it enjoyed what must be the best mountain views in Sikkim. It has played host to the great and the good - including the Dalai Lama (surely he should have been roughing it in a monastery -getting a bit soft eh!?) Gazing straight out on the Himalayas including Mount Pandim, Khangchendzonga and Everest the view was jaw dropping.
Also amazing was the hospitality we received -this makes up for all the bad times- we slept with an incredible view. Ian and Tshering also gave us the key to one of the suites- I'm pictured here in one relaxing and waiting for my turn in the bathroom! - so we could have hot showers when we wanted.
Honestly words can't express how wonderful it was and our gratitude to Ian and Tshering. It really is THE place to stay here check it out on the website www.elginhotels.com and follow the link to Mount Pandim.
We got up early for the view but never saw it at 100% its best as a lot of cloud came in. It was still a great view and we saw what was the first new snow of the season on the mountain ranges. Spectacular. The restaurant and service all round was really good too! Thanks so much Ian and Tshering and all their staff. As an aside Tshering is related (great niece??) to Tenzing Norgay Sherpa- no wonder she's such a dynamo of energy!
Whilst there we mainly relaxed and enjoyed the views of the mountains and down over Pelling but we did make it just down the hill to see the nearby Pemayangtse Gompa temple which translates to "Perfect Sublime Lotus." Dating from 1705 this is one of the oldest and most impressive Nyingmapa Gompas.
Set on the mountain top in beautiful gardens many of the rooms are painted with beautiful bright Tibetan motifs, whilst the monks' cottages are built in plain stone - very like the Newari buildings we saw in Nepal. The inside was also very elaborate- containing an ancient library, many murals and statues sadly no pictures allowed. There is a big dance festival here in February /March -which would be amazing to see.
Sadly we waved goodbye to one of our best camp sites ever and began the drive back to Darjeeling. Sikkim is famous for its alcohol. In much of India -other than in the high end places- alcohol is available but it is all a bit cloak and dagger - drinkers huddle to buy/drink alcohol in little dark stalls. Here alcohol is readily available and cheaper than neighbouring states. Thus we stopped to stock up on the way out and bought a box of beer. Supposedly you can't take alcohol in anything but personal quantities out of Sikkim but we saw truck loads going in. When we stopped to go through the border the customs officers were taking delivery of a box or 2 -maybe this encourages them to look the other way!
We crossed back into Sikkim at Ramman. Ian had given us advice about this road the "tea garden road" a quicker way back to Darjeeling, though we were concerned initially as to whether we could use it as there was a barrier on the first bridge which we just fitted under. Due to traffic and delays at the police post (no one could speak English and they weren't at all sure about us so the whole thing took forever) it was already almost dark by the time we started out.
The first bit of the drive was incredibly steep which was a bit worrying but we decided to just take it very slowly. The first village we hit had a full on festival going on with the kids all singing in a tent around a Durga statue - all very sweet. We stopped and got the large tikka marks on our foreheads and drove on.
We were pottering along slowly -about 12km an hour -letting other vehicles pass when we came badly unstuck. Driving round a corner in a little village we hit a HUGE pothole - where a drain cover had come off. Even as we went down it -on my side- we didn't understand what was happening as we could still see the road. Thankfully we managed to back out but it really shook us both up as dropping suddenly 3 feet would do! I'd momentarily forgotten about my tikka which I'd smudged everywhere and initially thought the red colour on my hands was blood which panicked me a bit! Andrew had also hurt his neck which was more of a worry- but the poor car had come off worse. The shock absorbers were completely twisted, the suspension bags had burst and the shocks were badly twisted. On top of this our tyre had gone down.
This was right in the middle of a village mind you and apparently It'd been there for 3 weeks but no one had put up a sign /flag /bit of wood in it. If we'd been on a bike one of us could have been killed. The locals did come to our aid and help change the wheel - but can you believe people can be so bloody stupid to just live next to an accident waiting to happen like that ….. Anyway we couldn't bend the springs back though we tried, but luckily we managed to limp on slowly for the remaining 26 kilometres to Darjeeling when we pulled up a bit battered and bruised back at the Tourist Lodge Guest House.
The next day was freezing cold and raining. It was also a major public holiday. As mentioned before the crossover of holidays in this area is a bit confusing but this one was Dussehra - the same dates as Durga Puja this celebrates the victory of the Hindu god Rama over the demon King Ravana - same festival really different cast members - but whatever it was called it was like trying to get a tradesman out on Xmas day finding a working mechanic!
Thinking laterally we went looking for a Muslim mechanic on the basis they might be working. We headed to the Beef market (not many Hindus there!) and the guys were very nice and helpful -but no mechanics. So -we had to wait until the next day to do anything to the car. Of course we also had to leave the country by the next day -so all in all our timing was lousy!
Next morning we got up very early (thankfully it had stopped pouring) and set off. The drive was very beautiful -through tea gardens - and we drove very slowly.
It was amazing how it warmed up -we left in hats jeans and jumpers and were stripping off as we descended by the time we got to the plains it was stinking hot. We'd taken advice as to where to go and so headed straight to a "spring doctor" just out of Siliguri. Thankfully he was able to help. The shocks are cactus but we got the springs straightened out so we could drive. The car still needs a bit of work doing but we know a good mechanic in Kathmandu so we should be able to get there in one piece. We also got our puncture repaired.
On the way to the border we stopped off at Bagdogra at the Marine Hotel -which someone had recommended as a good lunch spot -which indeed it was. There we met a really interesting Indian couple, from Bombay who were on their way up to their holiday home in Darjeeling. They were interested in the car and it turned out they had done a similar trip -from the US to Europe to India - in a Peugeot 504 (with fold down seats so they could sleep in it!) in 1971. You meet fellow overlanders everywhere. The man (Vijay??) said it still remained the best thing they'd done in their lives -as we're sure this trip will be for us!
We drove on towards the border, going past one particularly amazingly elaborate paddal, a huge lifelike statue the birds were already de-nuding the statues of hair to build nests! It was a pretty drive.
So with the car still a bit battered but partially restored we drove on to reach the Panitanki/Kakarbhitta border crossing, a typical bustling dusty border town. We had actually got a Nepalese visa a while ago and due to our change in plans (going to Sri Lanka) it was now out of date. Don't tell anyone …but they didn't notice (it was late and a holiday so no one wanted to be there!) and we got stamped in without having to pay $30 USD each for another visa. Tricky part will be if we can get it extended and get out again without anyone noticing! By the time we came out of Indian customs and immigration to cross into Nepal we were in a rush so weren't pleased to see our tyre was completely flat!
The Nepal side of the border was about to shut (they are a ridiculous 15 minutes ahead of India time wise a fact we'd forgotten) so I left Andrew with the tyre and rushed ahead with our passports and carnet to get them stamped before the offices closed and left us stranded in the no man's land between 2 countries overnight. The guy on "carnet duty" obviously had never seen one ( everyone is on holiday so operating on skeleton staff- it no doubt wasn't his job) but we talked him through it and he signed/stamped where needed. With just 5 minutes to spare before the border shut we drove on crossing from India into Nepal for the second time this trip. Just made it!!!